A better and more practical voting system and a constitutional review

Keith Miles. (Photo: Polona Avanzo)

I have written a number of times over many years about voting systems in particular comparing the so called ‘first past the post system’ and the ‘proportional’ approach. The first time was in the year 2000 when it seemed to me that there was little understanding in Slovenia of the ‘Anglo-Saxon system’. Both systems have various forms but in general they start from the above descriptions.

The great advantage of the ‘first past the post system’ is that it is easily understood by the voters. The system in effect is an ‘Olympic Games’ approach where only one person can get the gold medal, not a proportional system with the winner getting 25% of the Gold Medal and the next 15% of the medal, and so on. You win or you don’t win! The second feature that makes it easy to understand is that in each electoral district you vote for a person. Obviously that person in the vast majority of cases is the member of a recognisable and serious party. However it sometimes happens that an independent candidate who is very respected locally can be elected despite being against the party election machines. The elected person is responsible, as a representative not a party delegate, for everyone in his electoral district and must serve them all, not just his party. I appreciate that in the Slovene system there are designated people  for districts but they do not have the same ‘service to all’ attitude and most people do not know who they are. The electors mostly also do not understand the complicated formulae that are used. What do most people know of Droop and d’Hondt methodologies?

Of course it often means that in the UK, with its first past the post system, a party can get a majority of seats even if they do not get a majority of votes but on the other hand the election manifestos that are put out are clear and the winner has a responsibility to try to carry its promises out. On the other hand in the Slovene proportional system it seems that the manifestos are only published to get support however idealistic and improbable they may be. They result is that the policy of the coalition government is not seriously responsible but on of a ‘lowest common denominator’ basis, and the government can be brought down by the most insignificant and self-centred party that is part of the coalition. I am not surprised that voter turnout is low.

The fact that a party in the UK can make the government with less than 50% support is in itself a restraint because the governing party knows that fact and it means that other pillars of the state such as the Military, the Police, the Civil Service, and Government Agencies also know that. These pillars know that they should first and foremost have a loyalty to the nation and this is reinforced by the knowledge of the government having less than 50% of voter support..  In addition independent groups in civil society such as charities and clubs know the same and can see that the government is not an elected dictatorship.

The argument that proportional is more fair does not hold water for me especially when you have a minimum hurdle to clear before getting any seats. As I pointed out earlier this year the 4% hurdle system, whilst trying to exclude insignificant parties, in effect in this recent Slovene election disallowed the votes of 104,000 people or about 11% of those who voted. Then we must consider the very poor turnout at recent elections of just over 50%. So that when we add the disallowed and non-voters together they were in fact the majority, and any government that is formed will not have the support of the majority of eligible voters. You can also get the strange mathematical situation with the ‘hurdle’ system that if there are 24 parties taking took part 23 could get 3.5 % of the votes each and miss the hurdle, and one party get the rest or 19.5% and get all the seats in Parliament. If you have a so-called pure proportional system as in Israel, that is with no hurdle other than getting enough votes to obtain one seat in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, you end up with a minority party usually one of the religious parties in a coalition making demands for special treatment. Then we have the variant of the alternative preference system where voters make their first choice and then their second, and sometimes putting all the candidates in order. This could result in a Parliament, and therefore government, of second-best people, or a losers’ government.

It is understandable that societies which are strongly divided are fearful of the oppression of one side by the other, or the suppression of a minority, and so desire a system that mitigates the faults of both the proportional systems and the ‘majority’ system. This is why the local devolved Parliament in Northern Ireland, with its historically divided society, is different to the main UK system.

The German system, which is not perfect as we have seen in the last election, is a hybrid one that tries to mitigate the faults of the two systems and something like this should be considered by Slovenia.

Although this somehow goes against the Slovene mentality of liking something perfect on paper even if not in practise but as we all know often ‘the perfect can be the enemy of the good’.

So, what to do?

In my view there should be a constitution review. I wrote about this in 2011 and I am still of the same opinion. It is a normal matter for constitutions to be changed and major countries such as the USA and France have done this regularly. Sometimes constitutions are completely replaced as France has often done. In general the Slovene Constitution has done a good job in the circumstances but has been weak in places, and has ended up full of vested interests.

So where do I think changes need to be considered?

  • Clearly the experience on referendums has been far from satisfactory. Whilst referendums are laudable in many ways you need the Swiss years of experience to make it work responsibly. I remember Slovenia voting in a referendum for a majority voting system but it never happened because of political machinations. Recent referendums have also been held on matters that really should be decided by parliament. They have been costly and often resulted in a vote more on the popularity of the government and less on the issues. Referendums should in the Slovene context only be on very major issues, and should not usurp the position of Parliament.
  • Governments under the Slovene constitution have not in recent years been particularly stable and they have always become unstable in their last year of office with the government as the Americans say becoming a lame duck. Slovenia should as noted above consider the German Mixed Member system to give a direct connection between a district and a member of parliament. If a German type system is not chosen then the threshold for getting a party candidate into parliament on a party ticket should be increased to 5% to reduce the possibility of complex coalitions, and perhaps a candidate deposit scheme to ensure serious candidates only take part.
  • It should be easier to have a mid-term elections.
  • Top Ministers should always come from Parliament, and remain members of Parliament.
  • The constitutional position of State Secretaries should be reconsidered. Are they politicians or Civil Servants? They seem to be both and therefore the civil service is politicised.
  • The position of the President should be made clearer. To my view it should be completely ceremonial so that the position acts as a unifying force for the nation. This may make it more likely that a distinguished and respected non-politician is elected. Slovenia should follow the German, Austrian, Italian, and other central European models not the French, Russian or Balkans styles. The recent experience has been mixed. Pahor has tried to be non-political but Turk was the opposite.
  • Immunity for politicians should be greatly reduced. The only immunities politicians should have should be against actions for slander and to allow freedom of movement, and freedom of information.
  • Human rights elements of society need to be examined in terms of operations. For example why are the courts so slow?
  • A legal limit on state ownership of the economy either directly or indirectly should be in place.
  • The position of the upper chamber should be considered, especially its veto rights. Other countries successfully have an elected senate or a uni-cameral system.
  • The position of government agencies should be looked at in terms of how they are controlled.
  • Are the police and courts genuinely independent, and how is actual performance regularly reviewed?
  • Should the Constitutional Court have more investigative powers?

An intensive debate is needed and an overhaul of the constitution is required as it is obvious from the present situation that the democratic system is finding it difficult to act decisively in emergency situations.

Who should do this review? Should it be the Constitutional Court or a Special Parliamentary Commission? And of course any changes will need a super-majority in Parliament.

But above all a country needs a democratic system that works for them and which is seen to be practical, and in which responsibility is paramount, and at the crisis moments politicians put the country above party.

So as Churchill famously said:

‘It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.’

Which means that any democratic system is not perfect and therefore may need to be modified from time to time.